Strongman Hun Sen confident that judge – a senior member of his party – will rule to eliminate election rival today
The decision on whether to dissolve Cambodia’s main opposition party falls today to a judge listed as a senior member of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party whose close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen stretch back more than three decades.
Supreme Court President Dith Munty, who turned 76 yesterday, is a member of the CPP’s powerful permanent committee and was part of a trusted circle of advisers to the premier as the country rebuilt itself after the Khmer Rouge was ousted.
Today, the court will consider an Interior Ministry complaint seeking the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the country’s largest opposition party and the only electoral threat to the CPP. While the government’s accusations that the CNRP – and its leader, Kem Sokha – colluded with the US to foment “revolution” remain unproved, numerous ruling party officials, Hun Sen included, have insisted the party’s guilt is a foregone conclusion.
As presiding judge, Munty will be directly involved in making the final call.
In the 19 years the Supreme Court has been under Munty’s leadership, analysts say it has failed to establish its independence from Hun Sen and his CPP – controversially deciding, among other things, to uphold a politically tinged “incitement” conviction against former opposition leader Sam Rainsy in 2011, as well as a defamation conviction against senior opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua in 2010.
“You could count on one hand the number of times a high-profile judicial decision has gone against the wishes of the country’s political leaders, which says a lot,” says Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
Sotheara Yoeurng, legal expert at election watchdog Comfrel, notes that the Supreme Court’s reputation among the public and international community is particularly fraught when it comes to political cases.
“You can claim yourself to be neutral, but if the public knows you are a member of the ruling party, the public will not trust you,” Yoeurng says.
A former cadre of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, which helped overthrow Pol Pot with the help of the Vietnamese in 1979, Munty rose to prominence as deputy minister of foreign affairs under Hun Sen in the early 1980s, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”.
In 1991, Munty was one of five Cambodian leaders who travelled to France in the premier’s entourage for the signing of the Paris Peace Accords with rival faction leaders Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Khieu Samphan.
He was appointed president of the Supreme Court in 1998 and has held the position since, in spite of laws that require judges to retire at age 60.
Despite keeping a low profile compared to other officials close to Hun Sen, Munty is listed as the number 15 official on the party’s elite permanent committee and a member of the central and standing committees on the CPP’s website.
His dual role as a party leader and an ostensibly independent judge “clearly creates a conflict of interest” for himself and the Supreme Court as a whole, says Kingsley Abbott, Southeast Asia legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists.
“At an absolute minimum, the president should recuse himself from any role in relation to the case, as should any other judge if they have a similar position within the CPP,” Abbott adds.
Indeed, Munty is not alone on the Supreme Court in his ties to the ruling party.
Supreme Court Vice President Khim Pon is also listed as a member of the CPP’s central committee and was a former deputy interior minister in the 1990s, while fellow Vice President Chiv Keng is a former adviser to late Deputy Prime Minister Sok An – himself a member of the CPP’s permanent committee, and one of Hun Sen’s closest allies.
The court’s chief prosecutor, Chea Leang, is a niece of An and a national co-prosecutor at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, where she has been accused by critics of toeing the party line by refusing to sign off on charges in government-opposed cases.
A former Supreme Court prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said this week that the opposition party “never, ever wins cases in court – including the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court – because the orders come from top politicians”.
“The junior leaders cannot oppose them ... The CNRP loses permanently,” he said.
“How can you make your own side lose?” he asked, referring to judges’ links to the CPP. “This impacts the judges’ decisions 100 per cent.”
Legal expert Sotheara also questions how the dissolution case can proceed without first settling whether jailed CNRP leader Kem Sokha is guilty in his own, separate case for alleged “treason”.
“They have to proceed with the Kem Sokha case first because Kem Sokha is in charge of the CNRP,” says Yoeurng. “If the court cannot find him guilty of a crime, how can you dissolve the party?”
The former Supreme Court prosecutor also points out that the penal code stipulates that people and organisations cannot be charged for something that was not illegal at the time.
The amendments to the Law on Political Parties under which the CNRP is being charged were rammed through the National Assembly in February and July of this year – four years after Sokha appeared in a video telling supporters he had received advice from the US, one of the government’s key pieces of evidence.
The opposition party will not bother sending lawyers to today’s hearing, since it would be pointless, said CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay.
“The prime minister already put a bet on it,” Chhay says, referring to public declarations made last week by Hun Sen guaranteeing the party would be dissolved.